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     Apr 22, '14

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Obama runs China's pivot gauntlet
By Peter Lee

In recent days, the People's Republic of China has dropped several public relations clangers: it barred Japan from a fleet review in Qingdao and, after the US pulled its ship in solidarity with Japan, cancelled the whole review; it snubbed Japan's Marine Self Defense Force delegation by refusing a bilateral meeting; and a Shanghai court ordered the seizure of a Mitsui OSK Line vessel - a gigantic ore carrier longer than three football fields - as compensation for a 1937 legal case.

This string of events occasioned a certain amount of triumphalist hooting that China's goonish behavior was a series of own goals and soft-power defeats for the PRC that would contribute to the preferred US dynamic of overbearing PRC behavior strengthening

a defensive alignment of Asia democracies led by, of course, the US of A.

This new Asian security regime is due to be celebrated as the successful implementation of the "pivot to Asia" during President Barack Obama's visit to the region. (Obama leaves the US on Tuesday for a week-long tour, taking in Malaysia the Philippines, Japan and South Korea.)

The question that should be asked is whether the PRC leadership has looked at events in Asia and developments worldwide and decided to do something other than fight on the West's preferred ground of "soft power".

It should be pointed out that whenever the PRC wants to get serious about its Japan-related gripes, it does not engage in what I would characterize as Senkaku kabuki, the ritualized display of sovereignty-asserting chicken-of-the-sea encounters between PRC and Japanese maritime patrol vessels and aircraft.

Instead, it kicks off hostilities on its home ground, where the PRC holds the legal and diplomatic advantage and can draw on the assiduously cultivated anti-Japan hostility of a significant swath of its citizenry.

Therefore, the fact that the PRC has chosen to flex its anti-Japanese muscles in Qingdao and Shanghai, pivot be damned, should be a matter of interest to the US and the Asian democracies.

As to the context in which the PRC is seemingly abandoning its hope of modifying its behavior to win the approval of its perennially disapproving liberal democratic audience, consider recent developments.

While the US was preoccupied with developments in Ukraine, the PRC decided to interfere with the Philippines' resupply of nine marines stationed on the Sierra Madre, a hulk that had been beached on the Second Thomas Shoal/Ayungin Shoal/Ren'ai Shoal in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea in 1999 in order to strengthen the Philippines' claim to the atoll.

From the UN Law of the Sea standpoint, the Sierra Madre is a man-made structure that is irrelevant to claims of sovereignty, which might explain why the PRC decided it was OK to mess with it. However, blocking the resupply could be construed as a violation of the standstill agreement negotiated in 2002 between the PRC and ASEAN.

The Philippine government failed, then succeeded in resupplying the Sierra Madre by air. Then, on March 29, a civilian Philippine vessel made it past two Chinese coast guard cutters and to the Sierra Madre.

This was presented as one of those heart-warming David versus Goliath stories, with the plucky Philippine vessel successfully eluding the hulking PRC cutters to bring succor to the stranded marines.

The truth is perhaps a little more complicated.

The PRC cutters first intercepted the Philippine vessel an hour before it reached the shallow water of the atoll but was unable to block the vessel. This might have less to do with expert seamanship than with the fact that the ship was chock-a-block with reporters - 12 journos and photographers from seven media organizations, including AP and Reuters. An AFP reporter and photographer were on board a Philippine military aircraft overflying the action.

Perhaps the PRC's unwillingness to play the role of the Ugly Chinese in front of an international prestige media audience had something to do with its forbearance. If the journos felt any ethical qualms about serving as human shields for this display of Philippine bravado, their reporting does not record it.

But there's more.

A US surveillance aircraft - and a PRC "balance beam" early warning turboprop - were also overhead, implying that the US and PRC had prior knowledge of the resupply effort.

So, the resupply mission now looks like a calculated show of US and Philippine resolve against PRC "salami slicing" - the incremental strengthening of China's geostrategic position in its adjoining oceans - and opportunistic testing of US determination subsequent to an embarrassing display of the limits of US power in the matter of the annexation of Crimea to Russia.

But yes, there's more.

Shortly after the resupply incident, two Japanese destroyers made a port call to Manila, something that was reported only by the PRC and Philippine press - not the English-language Japanese press, or the US press, as far as I can tell, which I consider to be a rather telling omission since journos had been packed to the gunwales ion the Philippine resupply ship just a few days before.

And then an interesting op-ed appeared on the Huffington Post, by T Dean Reed, writer of the Reed Report, rang the soft power changes, and passed along an interesting tid-bit:
[The PRC] has already shown signs of fear of public opinion branding it as a rogue nation. The first sign came when China appeared to blink and made last-minute offers if the Philippines wouldn't file its case [in The Hague where a five-judge tribunal will determine if China has violated international law by its continuing efforts to take over the South China Sea]. The offers were believed to include withdrawal from contested islands and reefs and a huge trade-and-aid package to the Philippines, described as leading to a new golden age of cooperation between the two countries.

Now China denies any such offer - "sheer fabrication" - because no formal offer was made, only back-channel efforts that were rejected by the Philippines. China has resumed its litany of bluster and threats, warning the Philippines of untold consequences. The next sign came when China displayed anger that the Philippines told the world how its supply ship successfully evaded Chinese naval forces by entering shallow waters at Second Thomas Shoal to feed and rotate troops stationed there. Journalists were aboard, and the story immediately received worldwide acclaim. [1]
What is interesting is that Mr Reed is a registered lobbyist, not for the Philippines, but for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, implying that the Philippines was discussing its PRC policy - and perhaps discretely communicating the price tag for a truly satisfying Philippines-Japanese alliance - with its Japanese interlocutors. [2]

And then the Japanese government publicly stated its support of the Philippines in its island disputes with the PRC.

And the Philippines proposed that all of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including "unqualified" members, be admitted immediately to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade regime, thereby gutting its usefulness as a "high standards" trade pact, but very much furthering the interests of Japan, which craves a central role in a China-excluding trade bloc, the bigger the better, in order to give the Japanese economy, Abenomics, Japan, and Abe a much-needed geopolitical leg up. [3]

So one has a picture of the Philippines and Japan coordinating a series of moves to strengthen their bilateral alliance and accentuate their polarization with the PRC, with behind-the-scenes acceptance by the US.

The PRC has also not done itself any favors with its hectoring of Malaysia over its faltering management of the MH370 passenger aeroplane disappearance; and Indonesia recently went public with its dissatisfaction with the anachronistic nine-dash line that the PRC uses to stake its geopolitical claims in the South China Sea.

Add to that the KMT's debacle in Taiwan, where a combination of the DPP opposition and student protesters has successfully stalled the approval of a services trade pact between the mainland and Taiwan, further wounded Ma Ying-jeou's crippled presidency, and raised the unwelcome (for the PRC) prospect that an emboldened and energized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will take the presidency in 2016 and steer Taiwan further out of the PRC's orbit.

In fact, the DPP, which has a strong bent toward Japan's ultranationalist camp, might even renounce Taiwan's claims to the Senkakus in favor of Japan. And of course, there's always the de jure independence boogeyman.

And there's more.

One of the under-reported stories is the steady stream of high-level contacts between North Korea and Japan, ostensibly on the limited bilateral issue of the abductees. One can also speculate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is happy to demonstrate that his negotiations with North Korea are more effective than the PRC-led negotiation process with that country - the one meaningful area of US-PRC diplomatic engagement outside of the Iran issue - and, indeed, he is taking advantage of the purge of the pro-PRC faction in North Korea to position Japan as a frontrunner in economic cooperation with the isolated nation.

Add to this catalogue of Asian problems the possibility that the PRC will be declared the loser in the Philippine case in the Hague over the nine-dash line and you have makings of a pretty fraught decade or two for the PRC in East Asia.

The success of the pivot dynamic has also been marked by the concurrent erosion of US credibility as "the honest broker" - ie the grown-up liberal democratic superpower that deters China and also restrains Japan.

The US had worked to sustain its honest-broker credibility by quietly conciliatory sidebars to its vociferous criticism of the PRC on the issue of air-defense zones, and its coordinated pushback on Prime Minister Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine for war dead. (Abe, whose visit to the shrine in December was the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006, was not among 150 lawmakers who visited the shrine on Monday, but he sent a traditional offering.)

Recently, an observer optimistically opined to Reuters that there was still room for a cooperative relationship between the PRC and the US, especially if President Obama declined to publicly throw red meat to his allies on the islands issues during his visit:
"They [Chinese officials] are trying to figure out whether it's the lower-level [American] people coming out and making these comments so the boss doesn't have to, or whether it's moving to a crescendo," said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the CIA and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I think there is a concern that this debate could be swayed substantially if Obama were to make very forthright comments on this trip," he said, "and that could tip the balance internally and make it more difficult for Xi to emphasize the Sino-US relationship as paramount." [4]
The PRC had also attempted to find some geopolitical (and anti-Japanese) common ground with the United States concerning Japan's undeniable (but frequently denied) capabilities as a threshold nuclear weapon power, complete with a large store of fissionable material, missiles, and scientific expertise sufficient to cobble together a nuclear deterrent.

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